Monday, May 30, 2016

Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst on BBC4

I watched a very curious television programme on BBC4 last night.  The well known art critic(!) Kirsty Wark interviewed Jeff Koons (b.1955) and Damien Hirst (b. 1965). The programme and interview were set within the context of the exhibition of Hirst's collection of Koon's artwork Jeff Koons: Now in Hirst's new Newport Street Gallery which opened to the public last year.

Was it a double whammy in terms of art marketing by the two of the most famous promoters of their own art?

Or something else? Read on to see what I thought!

PLUS links to other reviews of the exhibition and information about Koons and Hirst at the end!

a nanosecond from the BBC programme "Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Side by Side: The Interview"
The programme Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Side by Side: The Interview was really rather odd. It's available on BBC iPlayer for the next 29 days and it's a RECOMMENDED viewing by me.

I found at the beginning I kept being really distracted that it was Kirsty Wark rather than one of the regular BBC art correspondent/columnists interviewing the two very famous artists. Had Alastair Sooke (writer and "deputy art critic of The Daily Telegraph and one of Britain's leading arts journalists and broadcasters") or Andrew Graham Dixon (writer and "one of the leading art critics and presenters of arts television in the English-speaking world") or Waldemar Januszczak not been available - or not thought suitable - or had they 'passed'?

Or were her credentials that she fronted BBC2's weekly arts spin-off Newsnight Review from 2002 to 2014 - and this was a news item only?

I think it's probably very important that she had previously interviewed Hirst in 2007 in a special episode of Newsnight Review on the day the diamond skull, 'For the Love of God' (2007) is unveiled (and Hirst has a copy of the video on his website). Hence he knew her and she knew him...

However I'm guessing it could be all of the above in truth!

Anyway - on to the programme!  Below is a 12 minute video taster. (The programme itself is only 30 minutes!).  If you believe this, the programme asserts that it records when Jeff Koons sees the exhibition for the first time at the Gallery in London.

In terms of structure, it started with a tour of the gallery - room by room - moving through the different phases of Koons's work prior to the interview. In this sense it's a really excellent programme for getting a sense of how Koons's work started out and developed over time.

a number of wall-mounted Hoovers from The New series
immaculate, unused household appliances are displayed in fluorescent-lit, acrylic boxes

The first gallery has items from Koons's early years
  • early "readymades" which are part of The New series (1980–1983). 
  • Inflatable Flowers (Short White, Tall Purple) (1979), a vinyl blow-up flower displayed on a mirrored floor tile.
  • The film introduces the fact Hirst has been a huge fan of Koons's work since his student days. He initially saw the work in magazines. Hirst first saw Koons’s work in the 1987–1988 group exhibition ‘New York Art Now’, presented at the Saatchi Gallery during Hirst’s second year at Goldsmiths college.  He loved the work because his tutors didn't like it and it seemed "so simple, so easy"
They then looked at his objects cast in bronze from his Equilibrium series and how they precisely mimic the surfaces of the real thing. However when Koons starts to liken a bronze cast of a snorkel vest to the voluptuous eminine features found in the form of the Venus de Willendorf he totally lost me!

Next up was one of the"inflatable balloon" pieces. 'Balloon Monkey' cast in brilliant blue stainless steel with a mirror finish looked alarmingly as if it could be popped any time. I'm afraid Wark's choice of putting the fact of that another work in the same series fetched $58 million dollars at auction in 2013 BEFORE the  tromp-l'oeil effect and the way in which they piece looked or how it was made also undermined her credibility for me. By all means mention it - but not first!  I loved the fact that Hirst commented on the fact he had no idea at all about how the mirror finish is achieved - giving the impression he half hoped the master might pass on this gold nugget of information after the interview!

Of course Hirst and Koons are two artists who "come up with the idea" for the art and then hand it over to others to realise it. So when Hirst admires the mirror finish with no ripples the implication is that this is all Koon's own work whereas in reality that problem has been resolved by an artisan who works with steel.  It was however interesting to hear how they took CAT scans of the balloons to get the precise nature of how the assembly worked in practice. (You can read more about some of the technical aspects in The science behind the art of Jeff Koons)
One room is not for the faint-hearted...the works here are shockingly explicit.Kirsty Wark
The next gallery features the Made in Heaven series – aka the 'adult' section of the exhibition. It comprises large 'blow-up' intimate photos of scenes involving the artist and his then-wife Ilona Staller (aka ‘La Cicciolina’) - emphatically NOT for children IMO although I've no idea whether they have controls on entry within the exhibition.  It's certainly the case that the BBC had warnings about adult themes and blurred a lot of the images!

The next gallery held what Koons described as 'transformative pieces'. I think he just means transforming statues into stainless steel with a highly polished as I really couldn't detect any other transformative aspects to them. They included:
  • the Kiepenkerl - a copy of a statue in bronze in Munster into a statue in steel. 
  • the Jim Beam series of works within the Luxury & Degradation series - which explored how alcohol was marketed to different people - which was the first time Koons worked in stainless steel.
"what's important is how to transform it and maintain its shoul - and its soul is a fifth of Jim Beam bourbon"Jeff Koons
Gallery 5 contains some of Koons more recent works which comprise playful and disturbing images - some of which look like rather weird and extra large blow up toys from the PopEye series which are actually polychromed aluminum - one of which (a Lobster) looks a bit like Dali. Turns out Koons is a fan of Dali and actually got to meet him once.

It also neatly demonstrated the serious nature of Hirst's own art collection. He's been collecting Koons work for the last 12 years. He has one of the biggest collections of Koons's art in the world with pieces from most of his career.  His commentary on the commitment of collecting and his awareness of what was missing from his collection ( a wooden piece and a ceramic piece) demonstrated to me somebody who's not doing it for the investment potential!  He views Koon's work as a portrait of America also sees within it aspects of life he is concerned with.

When we got to the actual "side by side" part of the interview - with them sat in front of the Play-Doh - I was left wondering whether it could possibly be a serious interview given the fact that Wark gushed and simpered her way round the gallery tour.

She asked them when they became aware of each others work. Apparently they had exhibited together in Germany in 1991 (when he did the Puppy)  and their families had got to know one another during the course of the exhibition.

Their discussions of the art were interesting and indeed surprising at times in terms of perspectives. Wark seemed to keep on a compare and contrast theme. The artist I found more interesting was Hirst. Koons seemed to be focused on denying some of the criticisms of Hirst's work and emphasising the nature of profound discourse which emanates from his own work.

I actually liked Hirst more as a result of the interview (and I've been a major critic in the past 

He seemed very open and he was very transparent about his motivations, who he was and and what he was trying to do. It was also interesting to witness his 'fan' status in relation to Koons.
"It's totally inspirational to see that somebody living today can make art that's on a par with all those dead guys!”  Hirst about Koons
I loved the way he described his collection of work he had always loved as some sort of justification for the amounts of money he was earning from his own work. That suggests to me a side of Hirst I'd not spotted before. Asking Gagosian whether a work would go up in value - a very frequent concern of anybody investing in art - seemed to me to be honest and in no way contrived. Plus somewhat curious given the amounts he was earning from his own art.

By way of contrast, I found Koons to be a bit of a sleaze. 

I've admired the technical skill of some of the work without being knocked out by it.  However his constant reference to sex, sexual parts and sexual innuendo just turned me off.  It struck me once or twice that the cameraman had spotted a few aspects of his creations which had maybe passed other people by. I know I was certainly looking at the various balloon images with new eyes having heard Koons's preoccupations with sexual aspects of anatomy.

I also thought Hirst got it absolutely right when he said he thought Koons had lost it when creating the 'Made in Heaven' series!

It struck me that in order to get his gallery off the ground, Hirst needed a very special exhibition in its first year. I'm assuming the very first exhibition at the gallery enabled them to road test the mechanics of putting on an exhibition in the gallery and checking out everything worked prior to 'the big one' which is the Koons exhibition. 

It's also made me think it's a little bit of oneupmanship in relation to Saatchi - who hasn't put on such an exhibition - and Tate Modern. Maybe in his collector and curatorial role, it's the next move on from the auction of 244 new works at Sotheby’s auction house in London in 2008 which he described as being about democratising the art market. It always seemed to me to be about Hirst putting Larry Gagosian back in his White Cube i.e. the gallerist should not be bigger than the artist.

However now he is the gallerist. Frankly I'm going to be interested to find out what else he has been collecting and what else he can do to 

...and that is where the Kirsty Wark film fell down. 

It didn't really touch too much on 'what next' and what else do you have to show us'. Possibly because it would have been bad taste in the company of an artist of the status of Koons. However those are the questions I'd have liked to hear the answer to.

Where next for Jeff Koons is not an a question which exercises my mind. I doubt it exercises his much either.

More about the exhibition

'Now' is the first major UK exhibition to be devoted to the artist since 'Jeff Koons: Popeye Series', at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009. The retrospective scope of the exhibition and extent of the work on display means that it's probably the best exhibition of his work in the UK to date.

It also needs to be considered within the context of the recent retrospective “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” which was a full survey of his career from 1978 to the present and was the largest and most expensive show the Whitney Museum of American Art has ever devoted to a single artist. It subsequently travelled to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

The "Now" exhibition features over thirty paintings, works on paper and sculptures dating from 1979 to 2014. Many of them have never been seen in the UK before.
 ‘Now’ demonstrates how Koons quickly embarked on his lifelong investigation into the means by which objects are represented and communicated
The exhibition opened on 16th May. It is open to the public and has free admission.
  • AT: Newport Street Gallery Newport Street, London SE11 6AJ
  • ON: until 16th October 2016
  • BETWEEN: Tuesday – Friday & Sunday 10am – 6pm; Saturday 10am – 10pm Closed Monday
Reviews to date have been very mixed - and they're worth a read
It is shallow art for a shallow world, its futile narcissistic mirroring the 21st century answer to Monet’s waterlily pond.
A onetime Wall Street commodities-broker, Koons is one of the most reviled and admired artists of all time: reviled for his art’s blatant association with big money and for the perception that he’s taking the world for a ride; admired for much the same reasons.
Coming from these pioneers of the contemporary artist-as-CEO phenomenon, twin emperors of personal-brand-building and the generation of art as product, one can't help but sniff around for a power play.

More about Jeff Koons

I was always brought up to be self-reliant
He told a story in the film about how he was always into selling things when he was young. He then became a commodities broker (a seller of things) when he grew up - and then he became an artist.
  • Website:
  • Born: York, Pennsylvania, in 1955. 
  • Lives and works in New York
  • Educated: Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1976.
  • Exhibitions: widely exhibited internationally including shows at:
    • Ch√Ęteau de Versailles, France; 
    • Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; 
    • Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 
    • the Serpentine Gallery 

More about Damien Hirst

  • Website -
  • Born: Bristol in 1965 in Bristol. Grew up in Leeds
  • Lives and works in London, Gloucestershire and Devon.
  • Educated: BA in Fine Art Goldsmiths College, London (1986-1989)
  • Conceived and curated ‘Freeze’ (1988) – a group exhibition in three phases which became a launchpad for a generation of 'Young British Artists'
  • Produced: installations, sculpture, paintings and drawings
  • Focus: the complex relationship between art, life and the “unacceptable idea” of death
  • Exhibitions:
    • over 80 solo Damien Hirst exhibitions have taken place worldwide 
    • his work has been included in over 260 group shows
    • 2012 - a major retrospective of his work staged at Tate Modern.


  1. A big commercialized "YUCK" to both of them.
    And a limited addition posters of my word "YUCK" will be available soon.

  2. Now was that you venting your spleen?

    Or was it a considered response after reading the post - or maybe after watching the programme?

    I suspect the former! Was I right?


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